One of our kids has struggled heroically this year with emotional regulation. I can say heroic now because I recognize the delicate wiring that comprises his arousal system and the unique qualities of his personality. Another child may sail effortlessly through the school day, hopping into the car afterwards brimming with energy and good nature; his tank is full, he spent a full day interacting with his favorite thing in the entire world: other people! He will happily (usually) do his chores and skip outside to play for hours until dinner. Homework, however, is another matter.
This other child though? I see him visibly sagging from the weight of the school day as I pull up to car line, his small shoulders telegraphing a message to me from the curb: I’m done. I’ve handled pretty much everything I’m able to handle today, and I need you to recognize that.
For months I ignored that message, or couldn’t translate it properly. Tantrums erupted daily after school, sometimes stretching for hours past dinnertime and ending only with sleep. We consulted with teachers and saw a counselor and modeled play therapy techniques at home and made plodding progress (again, not linear) and finally, what hit me after months of hard was something his therapist scribbled on a sheet of notes: “remember, this is not something he is doing, this is who he is.”
That single sentence reframed a year of difficulty and in all frankness, resentment on my part.
It wasn’t something he was doing. It was simply who he was. Not adaptable like his brother or fiercely independent like his sister. Sensitive and intelligent and utterly and profoundly exhausted by a day out in the world. My expectations had to rest in the reality of him. He needed little more in the afternoon beyond a snack and to melt into my arms for some quiet time on the couch. And he needed me to simply offer it and not dwell on the disappointment – my disappointment – that asking for anything more, like chores or activities, was asking for the moon. At least for now.
Another child has demonstrated a seemingly infinite capacity for mischief this year, and our house bears visible witness to it.
I can continue to live in willful ignorance of this and leave all the Sharpies in unlocked drawers because none of my other kids would have drawn on the kitchen cabinets with permanent marker, refusing to become one of “those” houses who childproof to the point of ugliness, or I can save myself the heartache of more broken treasures and destroyed tubes of mascara and put everything out of his destructive reach.
Every human person is a mystery. They have a particular mission they’ve been given to share with the world, and they are comprised of a surprisingly disparate collection of parts and pieces that don’t necessarily add up by human standards.
I’m not sure I would have gone with that particular trait and that specific weakness, I can muse critically, mentally scoring God’s craftsmanship in one of my children while wiping something unmentionable off a surface that should be out of reach, a masterpiece which must have taken long, careful minutes of intelligent strategy and persistent effort to achieve. This one’s going to end up on one side of the law or the other, as they say.
Or I can keep my eyes and ears open and maintain a sense of curiosity and even sometimes in rare moments of benevolence on my part, wonder.
It really would be a dull, efficient world had I designed it. But there would never, ever be poop in a place you weren’t expecting poop.
4. Self-acceptance is a beautiful, instinctive thing*
I hope this memory of my preschool daughter sears itself into the depths of my long term memory: looking down at her suddenly too-tight jeans and her adorably bulging belly preventing the buttoning of what buttoned yesterday, and exclaiming with joy “Wow mommy, I’m growing! This is great, I need new clothes!”
I look at her dumbstruck. Impressed. Wishing I could frame things that way. Granted, a child’s growing body is healthy and normal and expected. But shouldn’t an adult body also be released from the shackles of a static self image?
Every time I glance in the mirror and excoriate my reflection for not reflecting high school Jenny’s youthful visage back at me, I burn the miserable neural pathway of wistful nostalgia in a little deeper. What if I could expect – and therefore accept – a changing body?
I don’t mean an acceptance that tosses the eye cream and hangs up the gym shoes; that’s resignation by another name. It would be for me, anyway.
I mean an acceptance that bravely expects change. An acceptance that is untethered from the frantic message of marketers and advertisers and the tiresome echo chambers of social media and is deeply rooted in this gospel truth instead: you are fearfully and wonderfully make, and it is good that you are here.
I watched my little daughter bloom from a miniature preschooler this year to a sturdy little kid, arms and legs lengthening even as her torso blew past those size 4 skinny jeans (also, skinny jeans for toddlers? I judge myself. But also, that’s all you can find in most stores.) She was delighted to embrace her new body, knowing instinctively that it is good to grow and stretch and change. No playground bully or Instagram filter has told her differently, yet. I pray that when one does, she will be able to see the lie for what it is and turn back to reality.
*(Mental illness notwithstanding, of course. Depression, anxiety, and other pre existing conditions in our brains that precede self awareness can certainly interfere with an intrinsic self acceptance. Original sin is a real buzz kill.)
Finally, and most importantly of all of these, I look back over these past 12 months and see a distinct theme woven through all the smaller parts of the story, and it is this: that I am not in control.
I am not in control. You are not in control. None of us can hope to execute the perfect list of New Year’s resolutions because none of us can say for certain what the coming year holds.
I can fill a whole bullet journal with goals, set a dozen intentions for the coming year, fill a spreadsheet with data tracking my progress, but I don’t have all the necessary information at hand.
I can’t see the illnesses and heartaches, the financial stressors, the windfalls, the knock down drag out fights or the quiet moments of sorrow in the middle of the night.
All I can control, in the end, is me. Me, and how well I love the people around me.
Motherhood is searing this into my soul one stomach virus and night waking and parent teacher conference at a time, and I’m a very slow learner. As my cramped soul expands to consider the possibility that maybe this thing, too, can be good, I’m learning my lesson. Maybe this thing I didn’t expect and this situation I certainly didn’t ask for can be meaningful on some level, can be redeemed somehow, was what God intended for me all along.
I can imagine my heavenly audience of intercessors gathered around whatever God’s version of Facebook Portal is, waiting to see how I’ll respond to the situation at hand: Will she scream? Rant to her husband? Pull the soiled sheets off the mattress a little too violently? Write a scathing review online?
Sometimes the redemption exists only in my own heroic (ha) effort to resist throwing an adult temper tantrum when someone, say, stabs a hole in the couch. Because someone is going to stab a hole in the couch, okay? And then they’re probably going to cram it full of orange slices or snotty Kleenex. The only real variable here is time. Time, and whether or not mommy is going to add a new word to the family vernacular when she finds it.
But that variable is huge. And as I reflect on the gift of another year given, fully aware that I’m promised nothing beyond today, I hope to make better use of my time. Not simply becoming more efficient and productive, but accepting reality for what it is: a gift from a good Father Who is watching and waiting to see what I’ll make of it.